When jurors report for duty each morning in Derek Chauvin’s trial, they do so as a group, escorted into the courthouse building by members of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office using a private entrance. The building itself has been fortified — one of many extraordinary security measures for a high-profile murder trial that is playing out amid a pandemic.
The Hennepin County Government Center is surrounded by elaborate fencing and other security measures. To get inside, people must have preapproved access. Everyone who enters has to pass through two sets of metal detectors, similar to those at airport security checkpoints.
To reach the courtroom where the trial is taking place, jurors use a separate, private route, which takes them straight to the court. All public entrances to the building are closed, except for one pedestrian entrance at a gated checkpoint.
Once jurors arrive, they are to spend the entire day in the building, with short breaks in the morning and afternoon and a one-hour lunch break. By the court’s orders, they can only use their phones or other devices during recesses.
The imposing security measures were frequently mentioned during the voir dire jury selection process; in some cases, Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson seemed to mention the security footing as a way to gauge potential jurors’ views toward authority and safety. At least one member of the jury pool who said the measures made him feel safe was selected for the jury.
It’s hard to overstate how much different downtown Minneapolis looks now than before the trial started. Many buildings near the government center have their windows boarded up. Government buildings are especially fortified, with concrete barriers and tall fences that are topped with barbed wire. Some streets are closed down completely. Behind the fences, members of the National Guard and their armored vehicles are visible.
The trial is being livestreamed on video through three cameras positioned in the courtroom, on a single feed that news outlets are sharing. But images of the jury are strictly forbidden; showing members of George Floyd’s family is also prohibited, unless they have given their written consent.
The trial is now starting its third week of witness and expert testimony. Most days, there is at least a smattering of peaceful protesters in the area around the building where the case is playing out.
Some of the security measures were initially implemented due to events surrounding pretrial hearings for Chauvin and the other three officers facing charges. In at least one instance, the defendants and their attorneys had to wade through large groups of angry protesters.
The judge also surveyed defense attorneys for the former officers early on in the process and found that they had all received threats. He is concerned that if the jurors’ identities become known, people would try to influence their opinion of the case.
The jury will be fully sequestered only after all testimony has ended and they begin their deliberations, although the court has said that move could come earlier, if the situation requires it. The panel of 14 jurors includes two alternates who, unless they’re needed to replace a juror during the trial, will be dismissed when deliberations begin.
Another factor making these trial proceedings unusual is the COVID-19 pandemic. To follow health safety restrictions, all participants wear masks unless they’re isolated from others to address the court.
To lower the risk of viral transmission, large sheets of plexiglass are mounted on the defense and prosecution’s tables. Clear panels also separate the judge from the witnesses who sit alongside him. Those panels have been adjusted or altered at least twice, out of concern that they might show reflections of either the jury or of sensitive materials.
When attorneys want to speak privately to the judge in a “sidebar” discussion, they don’t do it by approaching the bench; instead, the lawyers, judge and court reporter all put on wireless headsets. To mask their words, Judge Peter Cahill turns on a white-noise machine. Attorneys mainly move around the courtroom only to hand transcripts and other materials to witnesses or the jury.
During the trial, jurors are being “partially sequestered” for roughly four weeks. Outside of court hours, they must avoid reading or watching anything to do with the trial — and during the selection process and again at the start of the proceedings, Cahill repeatedly told them their role is not to investigate the case on their own, but to weigh the evidence they hear during the trial.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only two reporters are allowed in the courtroom every day, working as part of a pool. Other journalists covering the trial work from a media room across the street. And reflecting the intense public interest in the case, the court has designated parking spaces for media trucks.